News: CJ Exclusives

House, Senate budgets fund components of Leandro, but critics still unhappy

Melanie Dubis, the attorney representing the Leandro plaintiffs, argues before Superior Court Judge David Lee in February 2018. (CJ photo)
Melanie Dubis, the attorney representing the Leandro plaintiffs, argues before Superior Court Judge David Lee in February 2018. (CJ photo)

Budgets passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly fund a number of provisions in the ongoing Leandro school funding legal case, but critics still contend the money falls short of the mark.

The House version of the budget, passed Aug. 12, contains more than 40 provisions specifically to address Leandro mandates, according to data compiled by EdNC. That’s almost three times the amount contained in the Senate budget passed in June.

Those Leandro provisions include $8.6 million over the next two fiscal years in teacher recruitment bonuses for low-wealth or high-needs schools; $5.2 million for N.C. pre-K; $3.8 million for cooperative and innovative high schools; and $10.5 million for career and technical training credentialing.

“Republican lawmakers appeared to have included a few of the Leandro plan’s most promising ideas in their budget proposal, including additional investments in career and technical education, principal fellowships, and recruitment bonuses for high-need districts,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “But it’s clear lawmakers would have included those line items in the budget regardless of Leandro.”

Left-wing education advocacy groups have recently turned out at the General Assembly to protest public school funding levels in both budgets. Communities for the Education of Every Child N.C. held a protest at the Legislative Building on Aug. 11 to that end.

“We are here at the General Assembly because for the past over 27 years the state has not been fulfilling their constitutional obligation to provide every student with the right to a sound, basic education,” said Naomi Hodges, an advocate for Every Child N.C. 

“[The Leandro] plan is fully fundable, it’s comprehensive, and it’s accessible,” she said. “If we’re not including it in our state budget, which is not just a financial document, but it’s also a moral document which reflects what we as a state believe is important, then we’re clearly saying we aren’t valuing education the way that we should be.”

The Leandro lawsuit dates to 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state over education funding. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled twice since then — in 1997 and again in 2004 — that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education” to all students.

In March, defendants in the case — the state of North Carolina plus the N.C. State Board of Education — submitted a document called the Comprehensive Remedial Plan to David Judge Lee, the presiding jurist in the case. The plan was mandated in consent orders Lee issued in January 2020 and September.

The Comprehensive Remedial Plan draws from a more than 300-page-report from WestEd. In 2017, the parties agreed to hire an outside consultant to draft recommendations for how the state could meet the Leandro mandate. They selected the California-based consulting firm WestEd, which delivered a report to Lee in July 2019 that recommended $8 billion over eight years on public schools. It also draws on recommendations from Gov. Roy Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.

Stoops said WestEd failed to confer in a significant way with Republican leadership in the General Assembly when developed the Leandro remedial plan.

“It would be a dereliction of duty and a violation of trust for lawmakers to simply cut and paste an expensive, multi-year plan developed by an out-of-state consulting firm that never bothered to consult with them at any point in the development of the Leandro plan,” Stoops said. “If WestEd had conferred with legislative leaders during the development of the remedial plan, then I suspect that the state budget would incorporate that much of that plan. But Republican lawmakers had almost no input into the plan that various advocacy groups now expect them to fund completely.”

The budget process now moves to a conference committee with negotiators from the two chambers of the General Assembly. That committee will iron out differences in the House and Senate budgets before lawmakers send a final version to Cooper.